On the Trail: Takeaways from a combative and illuminating GOP gubernatorial debate

Jul 7, 2016
Originally published on July 8, 2016 9:41 am

If Missourians tuned into their NPR affiliated station Wednesday night expecting an easy-going session from Lake Wobegon, they were in for a big surprise.

That’s because the debate between Missouri’s four GOP hopefuls for governor was a, dare I say, lively event. It came as Catherine Hanaway, Eric Greitens, John Brunner and Peter Kinder head into the final stretch of the high-stakes and expensive campaign.

The main target in the St. Louis Public Radio-sponsored program was clearly Eric Greitens, a first-time candidate who has occasionally become a lightning rod whenever the four candidates converge.  Greitens, a former Navy Seal, author, nonprofit founder and boxer, delivered some strong jabs of his own.

While the energetic acrimony was certainly one of the defining characteristics of the debate, there were some surprises from a policy and style standpoint. From my perch as one of the debate questioners, here are some takeaways:

The candidates weren’t dismissive of having an independent prosecutor or investigatory agency come when there's a police-involved killing.

By the time most of America woke up on Wednesday morning, the death of Alton Sterling at the hands of Baton Rouge police officers had become a major story. The cell phone camera footage evoked memory of similar situations in New York, South Carolina, Chicago, Cleveland and the St. Louis region. (Shortly after the debate ended, a video showing the aftermath of a fatal police shooting in Minnesota began making the rounds on social media.

Some of the first recommendations from the Ferguson Commission involved bringing in the state attorney general and the Missouri Highway Patrol when police exercise deadly force. It’s an idea that hasn’t caught in the Missouri General Assembly, but wasn’t dismissed out of hand on Wednesday from the GOP candidates.

“I know it’s a very difficult circumstance when you call upon law enforcement to essentially investigate themselves,” said Hanaway, a former U.S. attorney. “So I am open to have a fresh set of eyes to look at an investigation when there’s a police-involved shooting – maybe not every time.”

Kinder said during the debate that he would “entertain those proposals,” adding that “he didn’t have any problem with a look over the top from the Missouri Highway Patrol for which I have unbounded respect.” After the debate Greitens and Brunner said they would consider the idea as well. (Brunner added that he needed to study the issue further.)

The answers were a bit surprising since a lot of politicians from both parties have some big misgivings about the special prosecutor idea – including Democrats St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. McCaskill, a former Jackson County prosecutor, said earlier this year “no matter what you do to appoint a prosecutor in a police shooting, eventually it comes to an elected official.”

“Either it’s going to be an elected official at the state level or it’s going to be an elected official at a more local level,” McCaskill said. “I think it’s better to have more accountability at the local level.”

The candidates seemed undaunted by legislative opposition to ethics proposals.

Candidates of all political stripes have promised this cycle to ban lobbyist gifts and make it harder for lawmakers to become lobbyists. But when those ideas came up in the Missouri Senate this year, they ran into substantial opposition. And it’s not like detractors of those proposals will vanish after election season concludes. 

Which brings up an obvious question to candidates like Greitens who, in sometimes-dramatic fashion, promised to bring about a culture shift to Jefferson City: How can candidates translate rhetoric into reality when there’s seemingly intractable legislative opposition?

Greitens' ultimate reply? “You need to have leaders who are willing to walk the talk and ban gifts from lobbyists.”

“And you know what we’re going to do as governor? I will work with any member of the legislature who’s willing to work with me on banning gifts from lobbyists,” Greitens said. “And if the legislature’s going to fight against that, we’re still going to get it done – and we will go to the people and find a way to put this on the ballot.”

Greitens wasn't alone: Kinder, Brunner and Hanaway also promised to keep pushing the issue. 

"On the very first day and on the first hour as your next governor, I'll issue a directive to everybody in the executive branch: No more gifts. No more free meals. No more junkets. No more golf games," Brunner said. "We're going to be back to business -- and a professional business."

But some current lawmakers are skeptical. In response to my question about whether candidates will be able to get past the aforementioned Senate opposition, state Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, Tweeted “it won’t happen.”

The candidates were not that keen on Donald Trump’s evolving Muslim ban.

During the heat of the GOP primary, Trump made waves when he promised a “complete shutdown of Muslims” from entering the United States until “we know what’s going on.” More recently, he appeared to shift that pledge to bar Muslims from “countries tied to Islamic terror.”

We’re obviously a long way from this idea actually being implemented (for starters, Trump has to win a presidential election). But that type of suggestion has pretty big social and economic consequences – which may be why none of the gubernatorial candidates embraced it in Wednesday’s debate.

“I thought it was more of a rhetorical statement,” Brunner said. “It’s a political statement. You know, I don’t know any serious plan behind that.”

Kinder said he “does not support a blanket ban on any religious or ethnic group,” a sentiment echoed by Hanaway. Citing his work with refugees, Greitens said “of course there should be no religious test – that’s unconstitutional.”

All four candidates, though, did express support for more rigorous screening of immigrants and refugees coming to the United States. But this is probably not the last time the GOP quartet will disagree with a Trump policy proposal.

Hanaway faced some heat from Greitens over her votes against conceal and carry.

Before she became the first Republican speaker in decades, Hanaway voted against a bill that would allow Missourians to conceal and carry a firearm. While she later voted for the measure, it was only a matter of time before those votes became an issue in a GOP primary where candidates are stressing their support for gun rights.

That time came Wednesday when Greitens brought up the votes to sharply question Hanaway’s commitment to gun rights. Hanaway replied that she voted against conceal and carry when Republicans were out of power in the Missouri House. But she contended she took a leadership role in passing it once she got the speaker’s gavel.

“When I became speaker and could do something about it, I supported it,” Hanaway said. “We passed it. The governor vetoed it. We had to go find 18 Democrats to join with us. I did. And I passed historic legislation.”

Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if Hanaway’s early votes on conceal and carry get a mention in an ad or two – especially since political advertisements tend to get more and more negative as campaigns near a conclusion.

Kinder’s attacks on Greitens were more forceful than usual. And Greitens was ready with a counterattack.

For the most part, GOP gubernatorial debates and forums have either been fairly tranquil – or, as on Wednesday, pretty combative. It hasn’t been uncommon for Greitens to face the most attacks – especially from Hanaway.

Hanaway and Brunner spent plenty of time during Wednesday's debate sparring with Greitens. But Kinder may have thrown some of the most forceful verbial volleys at Greitens – particularly regarding his decision to accept nearly $1 million from controversial venture capitalist Michael Goguen. While Kinder has criticized Greitens before on that matter, he’s generally taken more measured tones than he did on Wednesday. He went so far as to call Goguen's contributions the “dirtiest money that has ever been brought into any Missouri political campaign.” (Brunner, by the way, quietly said ‘I agree’ after Kinder made this statement.)

Kinder then called on Greitens to give the $1 million to the Covering House, which helps victims of sex trafficking. In response, Greitens replied: “it’s not a surprise that we’ve got all three of the professional politicians attacking me.” (Brunner, who has never been elected to office before, objected to that characterization.)

Greitens later said (as he has before) that Kinder is “the last person who should be trafficking in tabloid stories about men hanging out with strippers,” a reference to a 2011 controversy about an acquaintance with a former stripper.

“Why don’t you tell the people of Missouri about your own history, Peter?” Greitens said.

Kinder initially declined to respond to Greitens’ request. But he later noted that his opponents then spent a lot of money attacking him on the stripper episode and were unsuccessful in ousting him from office.

“The people shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘We’re going to decide the matter on real issues before Missourians – not something that happened way over 20 years ago,’” Kinder said after the debate. “That’s a dead issue. But I can’t forecast what my opponents will do once they get desperate.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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